A responsible parent knows that it goes with the territory: the obligation to set limits, to draw a sharp defining line, when the occasion demands it, between what is permitted and what is forbidden.
But when you try to do that, do your children immediately launch into a trying negotiating process that test your endurance to the utmost?
Some kids love to respond to every little rule you want to lay down, to the most trivial request you make of them, with a challenge, a counter-proposal, or at best, a bid for a compromise. They may never stop doing this from morning to night.
If that description fits your child, or even if he or she is only an occasional offender, it would be wise to tread very carefully. In analyzing the dynamics at play here, behavioral Jame Lehman, creator of the Total Transformation Program, makes an interesting analogy. He compares the mindset of the child to that of people playing the slot machines at the corner cafe or a casino.
Ultimately, the machine will take all their money. That’s what its owner put it there for. But if the machine would relieve them of everything right way, they would never go back. So what does it do? It takes a little of their money, then gives some back, then takes more and gives a little back. Now and again, players may even hit the jackpot, which only provides an incentive to keep on playing in the expectation of greater things to come. A vain hope, but the machine has trained them well.
It’s the same with our kids, says Lehman. They’re like gamblers. Once we let them over-negotiate or wear us down (even if the end result is “no”), then our children never know if this time they’ll get lucky. If they don’t get their way this time, then maybe they will next time. At any rate, what have they to lose, so why not take a shot?
But the truth is, we are the one’s who train our kids to do that!
You tell your precious son and heir, who hasn’t the best reputation for punctuality, to be sure to be home, at least this once, by 7 pm for dinner. You have an important engagement at 8, and you want the table cleared and everything organized before you leave.
So your “little lawyer” tries his luck: “Aw, man, must I leave the game in the middle? Why not 7.30? I’ll serve myself and wash up, I promise. I know where everything goes.”
You have several reasons why you don’t want that, and you’re not in the mood for explaining why. On the other hand, you can’t stand the whining any longer…
“OK”, you finally concede, resigning yourself to an inevitable mad dash to get to your meeting more or less on time..if you’re lucky! “Just see that you’re here at 7.15 – and not a second later!”
As Lehman points out: kids are going to test limits., that’s their job. What parents forget sometimes is that it’s their job to stand firm!
For a continually updated list of top-rate articles by James Lehman and his colleagues, see here. They represent some of the best advice on parenting and child behavior issues you’ll find anywhere.
Azriel Winnett is the author of the highly acclaimed, eye-opening book How to Build Relationships That Stick. An enhanced edition is now available as a paperback.